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Seu Jorge and Almaz create beautiful samba-pop 

Wednesday, Aug 4 2010
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There's a charming naïveté to the story of Seu Jorge and Almaz, the new album from the Brazilian samba-pop quartet of the same name. "When we made this record, the only thing guiding us was to follow where the music naturally took us," explains Jorge, the band's gruff-voiced vocalist (and an actor who has played roles in City of God and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). It's a mode of thinking that sounds quaint these days, but one that has imbued this new record with the aura of a quiet victory.

The way Jorge tells it, the group never really intended to make an album at all. One day, he was invited by sometime collaborators Lucio Maia (guitar), Antonio Pinto (bass), and Pupillo (drums) to add vocals to a song they were recording for Linha de Passe, a Walter Salles film about aspiring soccer players. He turned up, they finished the song, and then kept playing — for eight days. At that point, they realized they had 18 songs. Having stumbled into enough material for an album, they decided to pare it down to a dozen, settling on an equal-parts mix of soulful songs in the samba lineage (sung in their native Portuguese) and covers of artists including Roy Ayers, Michael Jackson, and Kraftwerk. They drafted Mario Caldato, an engineer best known for his work on the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique project, to master the album — then let the finished recording sit on the shelf for close to two years.

It's a decision Jorge attributes to the group's members prioritizing "other commitments," both personal and musical (Pupillo and Maria play with Brazilian rock-rap group Nação Zumbi). But last September, Caldato took the music to Stones Throw's sister label, Now-Again, for whom he'd mixed songs in the past. The music fit its ambit of bringing under-the-radar global sounds to greater attention. In Brazil, Jorge's singing career is more than a decade deep, and he is now considered the leader of a new samba movement. The covers on Seu Jorge and Almaz ensure the two parties are an apt fit — and make it accessible to listeners who aren't versed in traditional Latin rhythms.

Jorge recounts the recording sessions with an air of whimsy. He recalls that his wife suggested they turn their hand to Cane and Able's psych-infused '70s funk-rock roller, "Girl You Move Me," which they did, despite his view that "Brazilians don't really like or listen to rock 'n' roll." Likewise, they included a muted take on Michael Jackson's "Rock with You" simply because "he is my idol and I love that song." Both emerged as sultry, sometimes melancholy, but always striking cuts, propelled by Jorge's grainy baritone. It's this willingness to follow creative energy that makes the album an untainted joy: At no point do you feel you're being forced into listening to a song or cameo included at the behest of a marketing manager with eyes on some hot demographic.

These days, we're often guilty of talking and tweeting more about the process of a record's release than the music itself. It's helped lead to an era where artists' mind-numbingly mundane moves are seen as blog-worthy — with the result that listening to music can be cynical. We're often acutely aware of the marketing forces behind a record because we've seen the artist talk about them on some brand-sponsored video. So hearing an album as honest as Seu Jorge and Almaz, with its humble goal of laying the music bare and not projecting an image, sounds reinvigorating — wholesome, even. As Jorge reasons, "We all in the group have our own stories to tell, but we're musicians first." It's a conviction he makes sound naive — in the best way.

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Phillip Mlynar

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